The following story contains massive spoilers for The Fall of the House of Usher.
BY THE TIME you reach the final episode of The Fall of the House of Usher, the latest of Netflix’s horror limited series from writer/director Mike Flanagan, there have been a lot of scares, a lot of violence, and a lot of lore. But, still, a few lingering things remain that need to click in order for the series—based on the collected writings of Edgar Allen Poe—to really all fall into place. And luckily for us, that all comes to fruition and then some.
The framing of The Fall of the House of Usher is a simple and classic one. The very first episode of the show sets things up: Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), the patriarch of the rich, famous, and powerful Usher family and the CEO of the morally corrupt company Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, has just seen all six of his children die over the course of a week, and is ready to give his “confession” (whatever that may mean) to his longtime rival, C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), an assistant U.S. attorney who has been on his tail for decades.
It’s through this framework—Roderick telling stories to Dupin—that we learn just about everything that has happened to the present point. We learn about the violent and untimely deaths of each of Roderick’s children—whether from Annabel Lee (Katie Parker) or “bastards”—and how in every case, it was their own failings that led to their demise. We also learn, through a series of flashbacks, about how Roderick (played in younger form by Zach Gilford) rose to power within Fortunato, egged on by his duplicitous and cold sister, Madeline (played by Mary McDonnell in the present and Willa Fitzgerald in flashbacks).
As we approach the finale of The Fall of the House of Usher, after learning of Frederick’s (Henry Thomas) grisly death in the penultimate episode, it would seem that we’ve finally caught up with the present, where Roderick sits, drinking expensive cognac and speaking with Dupin. But things aren’t always as they seem; the final episode takes us inside everything that lingers, bringing everything full circle.
That includes some of Roderick’s hallucinations, the banging throughout the season from the basement of his childhood home (which he keeps saying is Madeline, and that Dupin for some reason never questions), and why, exactly, all of this is happening.
Who is Verna in The Fall of the House of Usher, really?
Even before the final episode of The Fall of the House of Usher, it’s abundantly clear that Verna (Carla Gugino) is no mere human being. Who (or what), exactly, she is, is never quite defined. But Verna (which, if you notice, is an anagram of RAVEN) represents some kind of devil or adjacent otherworldly force, a harbinger of death who exists only to tempt and test the ethics and morality of those who need testing.
She’s first present tending bar when Roderick and Madeline stop in on New Year’s Eve 1979, and we don’t know what’s going on with them, but we know they’re nervous about something. Throughout the rest of the series, Verna continues to show up—more than 40 years later, always looking exactly the same as the day she met them. She shapeshifts, and knows everything, always letting the Usher children know exactly what the universe needs them to know before their time is up.
An interesting aspect to Verna is that she is physically appearing in these places; Roderick, Madeline, and lawyer/fixer Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill) find her in photos that aren’t only in the present, but date back to past centuries, always looking exactly the same. Roderick refuses to believe it, but Madeline knows that this is their past coming back for them.
What past, you ask?
What deal did Verna make with Roderick and Madeline, and why did it result in the entire Usher family dying?
The final episode finally reveals what Roderick and Madeline did—and were running from—all those years ago, and how they first got involved with Verna in the first place.
After an episodes-long arc where the younger Roderick, Annabel Lee, and Madeline plotted to work with Dupin to bury Fortunato (where an ambitious Roderick worked in the mailroom) and its asshole CEO Rufus Griswold (Michael Trucco) for forged signatures and other misgivings, Roderick turned on Dupin. While under testimony, he went against what he said he would do, saying instead that Dupin was harassing him, that Fortunato did no wrong, and this his signatures were never forged.
By doing this, Roderick was briefly arrested for perjury, but earned goodwill with both Griswold and the larger Fortunato community; he was willing to take one for the team. While eventually Roderick could have used this to simply move his way up, he and Madeline had other plans. The twin siblings showed up to Fortunato’s New Year’s Eve 1979 party, greeted by a grateful Griswold, dressed as a court jester. After much schmoozing, Griswold eventually started hitting on Madeline, before the two retreated down to a soundproof basement. Here, Griswold realized that Madeline wasn’t just seducing him—she was drugging him too. He passed out, waking up tied to a chair in a secret tiny room behind a brick wall being built.
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At this point, as we see young Roderick and Madeline finishing a brick wall with Griswold behind it, we realize why Roderick has been staring at it (in the present) with a guilt-filled longing all season long: he and his sister killed a man, and his rotting corpse is behind that very wall. This is what they were running from when they showed up at Verna’s bar, and this is why they were trying to be seen and heard and noticed on New Year’s 1979.
But Verna isn’t a regular person. We see in the final episode that she knew exactly what they had done, she knew exactly what kind of person they are and could eventually be, and so she offered them a choice: achieve your wildest dreams, earn unimaginable wealth, live a cushy life. But just before you’re about to die—and you both will die, as you came into this earth together, and you’ll exit it together—your entire bloodline will die. Your time on this earth will be plentiful, but when you go, the Ushers will be no more.
Madeline, without children of her own, didn’t have to think much. And while Roderick should have thought of it more, he didn’t. They had a deal.
Through the years, the siblings convinced themselves that this simply couldn’t have actually been real. They shared a traumatic event at a formative time in life, and had been drinking quite a bit—their meeting with Verna must have been a shared delusion, and for years, they wrote it off as such. But it wasn’t. And as Roderick Usher got sicker and sicker in real life—his rare form of vascular dementia gave him horrific hallucinations, including Griswold’s Jester costume and his various children’s dead bodies—his bill came due, and all of his children died in front of him.
“Early in his life, he had a conversation with somebody who promised him an effortless life in return for something that he didn’t quite believe could happen,” Bruce Greenwood, who plays Roderick, told Netflix’s Tudum. “And now that’s coming home to roost.”
How did Lenore, Madeline, and Roderick all die?
Perhaps the saddest part of The Fall of the House of Usher‘s finale is that Lenore Usher (Kyliegh Curran)—who Roderick repeatedly stated throughout the course of the show was “the best of the Ushers,” and perhaps the only morally good person in the entire family—has to die as well, thanks to the pact that Roderick and Madeline made all those years ago. She’s part of the bloodline.
“There is a lot about my job that I love, but there are moments like these that bring me no joy,” Verna tells her in her bedroom after a conversation that found Lenore telling Roderick that it wasn’t too late to use Fortunato and the family’s largesse for good. Keep in mind that Lenore still had this pureness of mind after seeing her mother burnt within in inch of her life by acid (thanks to Prospero’s foolish orgy party) and then tortured by her father, who himself had just been brutally killed in a ridiculous freak accident.
Before taking her life (peacefully, without pain), Verna tells Lenore of the future: her mother, Morella (Crystal Balint), makes a full recovery. And using her name, she creates a nonprofit—The Lenore Foundation—that helps save countless lives over the years.
This death comes as a major twist; throughout the conversation between Roderick and Dupin, he notes that he’s not answering texts he’s receiving from his granddaughter. But she’s dead? Correct. As you may remember, Madeline’s plan was to turn Fortunato into a tech company, and one of her major projects was A.I. consciousness, created from scanning people’s social media posts and more. This was her Lenore bot texting Roderick… but it was buggy. In a direct reference to Poe’s most famous work (and how did we not see this coming with the name “LENORE”?!), A.I. Lenore only kept texting Roderick variations of, you guessed it, “Nevermore.”
That left only two Ushers—the ones who entered the world together, and had to go out as well. While Madeline tried to skirt the system by having Roderick overdose on his own Fortunato meds, Verna wasn’t letting that happen. And so Roderick invited Madeline over to their childhood home, where their mother once died (and rose again, only to strangle a man to death before finally dying herself), to share a drink. And they talked, and talked, and talked.
And one thing that was utterly apparent as they talked? While Roderick clearly felt lots of remorse for the collateral damage that his successes had caused through the years—Verna explicitly showed him the deaths he was responsible for—Madeline felt absolutely none. She instead blamed “the consumers,” the people whose lives are made worse by taking in the products that they (and others) make available. So Roderick, at least in this case, didn’t feel any regret. Not when he drugged Madeline’s drink, just as she drugged Griswold’s all those years earlier, and not when he cut her eyes out, mummifying her with the sapphires she so valued in her time on this earth.
Except… she was not dead. We heard this banging throughout the series, and much like Momma Usher when Roderick and Madeline were children, Madeline was not quite as dead as she initially seemed. She burst above ground, strangling Roderick as a surrounding storm began to take their childhood home down to the ground with them, just as Dupin got out of the house in time.
And within moments, the Usher home was a pile of wood and rocks on a lot, as Dupin, barely able to process what he had just witnessed, looked on.
The show is called The Fall of the House of Usher, but did you expect to literally see the House of Usher fall?
What happened to Arthur Pym?
One of the most interesting and perplexing threads of the finale comes with the way Arthur Pym’s story wraps up. Throughout the show, Arthur—not an Usher in name, but about as important to the family as anyone—shows himself to be just as resourceful as he is mysterious; Roderick refers to his trip on the Transglobe Expedition (a real thing that happened between 1979 and 1982!) as part of what makes him so mysterious, frightening, and, yes, useful and powerful.
This comes back in a major way. While we have all figured out that Verna is not-quite-human, Arthur traps her in the Usher childhood home and “murders” her in a chilling, quick, transactional way (that, for me, brought to mind a scene from Michael Clayton). For a minute, it’s a bit confusing: Did he just… kill her?
But no. Verna has what almost seems to be a matching respect for Arthur (which, if you choose to believe that she is The Devil is… quite something), and likes to see him do what he does. Just as she knew of Roderick and Madeline’s misdeeds, she also knows of Arthur’s (and the others’) transgressions during that expedition. She refers to a bit of friendly fire by his own hand, and alludes toward a gang rape (that he was not a part of, but did nothing to stop). It’s frightening stuff, and Arthur finally makes his way toward the real question: what does she want?
And so Verna essentially makes the same offer to Arthur that she did to the Ushers: give me something of value, and I’ll protect you from whatever bad things may be coming. Arthur considers, and he respects Verna just as much as she respects him. Truly two evil powerhouses right here! But, eventually, without any family or loved ones, Arthur doesn’t bend over. He’s chosen to live his life for 70 years the way he does, and he’s not going to break his own moral code now. Verna respects his choice, and leaves him to his time.
After Roderick and Madeline’s deaths, Arthur is indicted for countless crimes he committed to cover things up and more for Fortunato; Dupin’s narration reveals that he’s the only conviction from the case (because everyone else has died), and that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
As Arthur approaches the courthouse, we see Verna looking on.
What did the very end of The Fall of the House of Usher mean?
At the very end of The Fall of the House of Usher, we wrap up whatever remaining loose ends there are: Arthur goes to jail, Fortunato folds, and Juno (Ruth Codd) takes ownership, transforming the remaining funds into a foundation to help people beat opioid addictions, and Dupin and his family leave peacefully.
As the camera follows Dupin to the Usher graves, Verna is there, dressed in black, shifting form from “human” to Raven—(VERNA-RAVEN, remember?). She narrates with the words of Poe’s poem “Spirits of the Dead” as the show winds to a close, placing an item on the grave of each Usher that represents their downfall: a mask for Prospero, an iPhone for Camille, a cat’s collar for Leo, a mechanical heart for Vic, a golden scarab for Tamerlane, a bag of cocaine for Frederick, a raven’s feather for Lenore, sapphires for Madeline, and a glass—the same glass the he originally toasted their agreement with—for Roderick.
Poe famously described The Raven in his poem of the same name as representing a symbol of “mournful and never-ending rememberance”; every time the narrator at that story’s center remembers his long lost love (named Lenore), he’s looking for peace anywhere, of any sign. And all he hears in response is The Raven that’s made its way into his study: “Nevermore,” it says, over and over again. He’ll feel that pain forever, Poe’s writing implies, and the idea of that haunts the story’s narrator.
Roderick Usher, whether he’s realized it or not, lived a life of wealth and excess, but by the end of his life, had nothing but longing and loss for the pain he caused—as far-reaching as the deaths he’s responsible for worldwide, but as close as the innocent granddaughter that came in the world and had to die so young because of a selfish choice he made years ago.
By the end of the show, at the very least, that curse is done. That “Nevermore” pain, for now, will be felt no more.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.